Sunday 19 January 2020

Obituary: Tony Britton

Actor of stage, film and television best known for suave comedy in sitcoms such as 'Don't Wait Up'

Easy charm: Tony Britton. Photo: Ian Nicholson/PA Wire
Easy charm: Tony Britton. Photo: Ian Nicholson/PA Wire

Tony Britton, the actor, who died on December 22 aged 95, was for six decades a figure exuding light and theatrical charm on the stage, in films and on television.

His finest moment in the theatre was probably as Colonel von Schmettau opposite Celia Johnson in William Douglas Home's The Dame of Sark, which told the story of the Channel Island under occupation and played at Wyndham's for six months in 1974.

Douglas Home had wanted Sir John Clements for the part, but when he saw Britton conceded that "no choice could have been better made". Britton was convincing as the benign aristocratic anti-Nazi German Commandant. He got on well with Dame Celia (as she became), who found him cosy, kind and sympathetic.

She invited him to read poetry in Nettlebed church. They reprised the roles two years later on television.

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With easy, warm authority Britton also made a hit of the role of Professor Higgins in two much travelled revivals of My Fair Lady.

In the mid-1960s he toured the provinces for two and a half years, and in the late 1970s undertook a four-year run through Britain and Canada, ending in the West End. He was nominated for a Society of West End Theatre Award for best actor in a musical.

Of this production the critic B A Young wrote: "Mr Britton gives a beautifully acid performance of that arrogant artificer, his awareness of others totally lost beneath his devotion to his professional pursuits."

Anthony Edward Lowry Britton was born above a pub in Birmingham on June 9, 1924 and educated at Edgbaston Collegiate School, and Thornbury Grammar School in Gloucestershire.

He began work in an estate agent's office and then an aircraft company, and made his first professional appearance as an actor when he was 18, in Esther McCracken's Quiet Weekend at Weston-super-Mare, in 1942.

During the war he served in the Royal Artillery.

Post-war, he was in repertory theatre before his first West End appearance as Ramases in Christopher Fry's The Firstborn at the Winter Garden theatre in 1952. He followed this playing Vizard in Farquhar's The Constant Couple when Alec Clunes ran the Winter Garden.

In 1953 Britton joined Anthony Quayle's Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company at Stratford, where he stayed for two seasons. Kenneth Tynan singled out his performance in The Merchant of Venice as Bassanio, "an attractive scamp", opposite Peggy Ashcroft's Portia, "a cool Zephyr".

Thereafter Britton specialised in pseudo-gents, military types and clergymen, his wavy hair dyed a soft marmalade colour, and was sufficiently self-confident to advertise himself with no photo in Spotlight, normally the prerogative of the great stars.

But as he gained popularity in light TV comedies, he found himself isolated from classical stage roles.

He played in The Night of the Ball in the West End in 1955, and Gigi with Leslie Caron the next year. After a season with the Old Vic, in Chekhov's The Seagull, and as Henry Percy in Henry IV Part 1, he was an absent-minded ornithologist on a murder charge in Kill Two Birds at St Martin's Theatre in 1962.

Britton's most enduring role on TV was in Don't Wait Up on BBC1. He played Dr Toby Latimer, who had separated from his wife and moved in with his son (Nigel Havers).

He was married twice, first to Ruth Hawkins, the mother of his two daughters, including TV presenter Fern Britton.

He later married a Danish sculptress, Eva Birkefeldt.

Sunday Independent

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